Getting to Know... Spain

May 23, 2011

I've been thinking about the wine knowledge I've acquired along the way and how easy it is for me to navigate the Vintages section at the LCBO. The solid foundation I have is a result of appreciation courses as well as numerous hours spent poring over related books, articles and of course educational glasses of wine. (Check out of my Wine and Words: Books for Imbibers for great reads.)

And so I thought, considering there seems to be few blogs devoted to wine basics I would create a new series entitled 'Getting to Know...' as an introduction with accompanying links to more in-depth posts I've written.

Spain has been several countries spanning several centuries.

From Galicia in the North West to Catalonia in the east to Jerez in the south, Espana has been the harbor for sea-faring Phoenicians and Greeks, the land of loot for Roman legions and the humble birthplace of two Ceasars, Trajan (AD 98-117) and his successor, Hadrian (117-138). 

With the fall of Rome, Spain accommodated the invading Visigoths until newer visitors, some 7000 Berbers, under Arabic military leaders, landed at its southern tip in 711. Their main commander, Tariq, would give the Rock its name – Gibraltar (Gebel al-Tariq  – ‘mount’ of Tariq) and begin a great era of Muslim rule, a kind of Medieval Renaissance.

Spanish Moors controlled the Iberian peninsula with a tolerant fist and their domination  is romantically considered a period of relative peace, prosperity and innovation. The art, architecture and Castilian language of Spain began to take shape during these formative years. The Moors developed irrigation and introduced Spain to citrus fruits. 

Following Columbus' discovery of America and the last ousting of Muslim rule, the country became a world power comparable to then rising British Empire. 

But the mighty fall and Spain tumbled hard throughout the next three hundred years. For a moment, after numerous royal feuds there seemed to be a period of recovery in the early twentieth century but General Franco would put a halt to that. 

Wine grapes in ancient times were often fermented in large stone tanks and then further aged in amphorae (i.e. Greek vases). In Spain, there is archeological evidence of these tijanas as well modern ones in more traditional wine making regions. 

In the 1950s and 60s, the wine world, after years of antiquated winemaking, discovered new stainless technology technology and Spain, with some inspiration from France and Australia began to reinvent itself. 

Today Spain is experiencing a modern wine revolution. Influenced by both New and Old World viticulture and vinification practices, the country has come into the twenty-first century.  

In terms of wine production, Spain is third behind France and Italy (or Italy and France depending on the year). 

In terms of land under vine, however, Spain has the most with some 1,154, 000 ha/2, 851,600 acres. The reason for this discrepancy between production and parcels of land is that in such inhospitable landscapes such as La Mancha, the vines are planted several meters apart compared to the typical vine training systems of France and Italy.

Overall, this means less bunches per acre.

But being third is nothing to be ashamed of. Spanish varieties offer the wine consumer some beautiful alternatives to Chardonnay and Sangiovese. 

Tempranillo is grown throughout the Iberian peninsula and finds its roots in the majority of regions; it is rightly the flagship variety of Spain. 

Tempranillo has numerous aliases from Tinto de Pais to Cencibel to Tinta Roriz in Portugal (used in blends and in Port). The wines from the dark-skinned grape can make heady rich wines of black currant and plum in Ribera del Duero and Toro but finds its foremost expression in the Crianzas, Reservas and Gran Reservas of Rioja where it is made with minor percentages of Manzuelo and Graciano. The wines of Rioja tend to have a spicy-strawberry scent with lovely acidity.

Garnacha, known as Grenache in France, Australia and the United States is just behind Tempranillo. The variety is often utilized to add alcohol and body to blends. As a varietal, I find Garnacha wines have a certain brown-sugar blackberry character. 

Monastrell (known as Mouvedre in southern France) and Bobal are the main grapes of the The Levant on the Mediterranean coast. Both grapes make big, bold, full-bodied wines ideal for summer backyard barbeques. 

As for whites, Spain makes a substantial number of quaffable if not high-quality wines (unlike Italy where a large portion of whites are little more than mundane).  

Viura (or Macabeo) is used to make lemony-light varietals but is also blended with Parellada and Xarel-lo to either make white Rioja or the sparkling wines of Cava

In the north, especially Rueda and Rías Baixas, whites dominate. 

Verdejo from Rueda in Old Castile is lush and seductive with melon and mango character while Albarino of Galicia is the perfect wine to pair with seafood - crisp, mineral-citrus. 

The majority of Spanish wines you'll find in the LCBO will come from a specific DO (Denominación de Origen) or DOC (Denominación de Origen Calificada). Like the French AOC or appellation system, these DOs indicate quality and indicate place of origin.

Here's a list of the most popular DOs and DOCs at the LCBO with prominent grape varieties utilized by the region in brackets:

Rías Baixas (Albariño, Loureira)
Bierzo (Mencía - a lighter red)
Ribero del Duero (Tempranillo or Tinto de Pais)
Rueda (Verdejo)
Toro and Cigales (Tempranillo)
Rioja (Tempranillo, Viura)
Calatayud (Garnacha)
Priorato and Monsant (Blend of French and Spanish red varieties)
Cava (Sparkling and still whites - Parellada, Macabeo and Exarel-lo)
Valencia, Jumilla, Yecla (Monastrell and/or Bobal)
La Mancha (Tempranillo)

This is a great list to begin with and please use the links to discover more about Spanish wine and build your confidence in the Vintages section.

RELATED LINKS: In-Depth: Deciphering Spanish Wine Labels

Crow, John Armstrong, Spain: The Root and The Flower, Berkley, University of
California Press, 1985.
Jeff, Julian, The Wines of Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2006.
Radford, John, The New Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2007.
Robinson, Jancis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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